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Wisconsin GOP pushes for school voucher program

Andrew Campnell
January 30, 2013
Filed under News

The debate on a school voucher program in Wisconsin could spell trouble for public schools. The issue has become a hot topic in Madison as state Republicans try to expand the program.

The program gives parents a state-funded voucher of $6,442 per child to cover the costs of their private school tuition.

This cost is about half of the normal $13,329 in public aid toward Milwaukee Public Schools, according to online news organization Wisconsin Reporter.

The idea for the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program began in the late 1980s, led by then-Gov. Tommy Thompson. It went into effect in the 1990-91 school year, aiding a few private religious schools.

These days, the program reaches almost 25,000 students. It has even expanded into Racine, where 11 schools have a total enrollment of more than 500 students.

Wisconsin Republicans, among other supporters, say the program provides an alternative for parents of children in failing schools.

Democrats, meanwhile, argue that it takes money from public schools and feeds a bigger agenda to defund them, according to the Pioneer Press.

However, the debate on school vouchers leaves some Republican members  opposing the expansion.

Republican Senate President Michael Ellis, R-Neenah, and Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, said they would oppose automatic expansion of vouchers unless residents in the affected school districts first approve the expansion through a referendum vote, according to the Pioneer Press.

“We will have democracy at its purest,” Ellis said. “The people will decide.”

While Ellis and Olsen’s decision to cross party lines may be lauded by Democrats, they have little support from their Republican counterparts. Likewise, School Choice Wisconsin President Jim Bender spoke of his disapproval toward Ellis, according to the La Crosse Tribune.

“Certainly a senator who witnessed the ugly tactics and massive resources of the unions at the Capitol would not suggest the same battle be fought at the local level by parents in a failing school trying to find a better future for their children,” Bender said.

School Choice Wisconsin is a Wisconsin group that lobbies for voucher programs.

Ellis was quick to call Bender out for trying to compare the school voucher debate to the 2011 decision to eliminate collective bargaining rights for Wisconsin school teachers.

“We don’t have any failing school districts, so if voters want to have this, let’s have that dialogue,” Ellis said. “Throwing up the mess in 2011 is a red herring.”

Unlike SCW, Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chris Larson said Gov. Scott Walker and Republicans are putting public education at risk.

“While Gov. Walker is calling for increased oversight of our public schools, we cannot hand over more taxpayer dollars to fund an unproven, unaccountable experiment on our children,” Larson said. “Sen. Ellis is right to question the voucher program.”

Regardless of the support, the program’s effectiveness has been questioned.

Last spring, students in the Milwaukee voucher schools did worse on their Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Examinations than their public school counterparts, according to the Isthmus Daily Page.

According to the Wisconsin Report, the Wisconsin Education Association Council also pointed to a 2009 Stanford University study as proof of the ineffectiveness of this type of school system.

However, this assertion is gleaned from a report showing 63 percent of charter school students performing on par or better than students in traditional public schools, according to the Wisconsin Reporter.

Alternatives to this program have also gained attention. Wisconsin state superintendent Tony Evers is proposing his Fair Funding Formula, which would reallocate resources so the neediest schools would get more.

According to the Isthmus Daily Page, this alternative garnered support from state senator Kathleen Vinehout, D-Alma.

“There would be winners and losers in terms of property tax,” Vinehout said to the Daily Page.  “There would be no more referenda. It would allow a more fair system of distribution.”